MOUNTAIN MAN: COSMIC PROM
Jan. 17–19, 8 p.m. Fri. & Sat./7 p.m. Sun., $25
It’s unanimous: The purpose is joy.
The three singers of Mountain Man are gathered in the kitchen of the recording studio that one of them, Amelia Meath, is building in the woods in Chapel Hill with Nick Sanborn, her partner in Sylvan Esso.
Set to open sometime this year, it will be called Betty’s, after Sanborn’s grandmother.
As work on the studio progresses, the facility is already coming to life. It’s where Sylvan Esso—with Mountain Man’s Molly Sarlé and Alexandra Sauser-Monnig, along with several other friends—stayed and rehearsed before their recent WITH tour, which sold out two nights at DPAC.
Today it feels good to be inside, watching the gray rain pelt the backyard garden through a window, with steaming mugs of coffee and crunchy snacks on the table. Meath, Sarlé, and Sauser-Monnig are here to talk about Cosmic Prom, their three-night concert/art experience/silly party at The Fruit January 17–19, though only Harry Potter, cats, and astrology have been discussed so far—the idle lingua franca of a long friendship.
For each night of Cosmic Prom, artist Nat Russell is transforming the warehouse venue into a different whimsical environment. The first night, “Beneath the Stars,” is camping-themed; attendees are encouraged to dress up like “a starry abyss” (your guess is as good as ours) and bring sleeping bags. Night two, “Under the Canopy,” whisks us to the rainforest; dress like a tropical creature and bring a plant. Night three is “Below the Sea.” We hope you have a fish lewk and a beach chair, because at the time of this writing, it’s the only night that’s not sold out.
“Joy,” Meath says, distilling the point of it all.
“Joy,” Sarlé affirms, in her higher voice.
“Joy,” says Sauser-Monnig, resolving a canon of accord, albeit prompted by an interviewer who had gotten used to the trio’s way of echoing and finishing one another’s thoughts. Everyone laughs.
There’s a lot of laughter when you hang out with Mountain Man. After ten years, they’ve grown into their singular band name, harmonizing in conversation as they do in song.
Their origin story has been polished to the verge of folklore. They met when Meath overheard Sarlé singing “Dog Song,” the first song she’d ever written, in a Bennington College dorm. Meath asked Sarlé to teach it to her, then taught it to her friend Sauser-Monnig. Rather quickly, the spontaneous trio went from singing folk songs at house parties to releasing their nationally acclaimed 2010 debut Made the Harbor and touring with Feist as backup singers.
After the unexpected success and college, they scattered—to California, to Minnesota, to North Carolina. But in recent years, the stars have guided them back here, where Meath had established the Grammy-nominated duo Sylvan Esso. After a pivotal outdoor reunion show at Aaron Dessner and Justin Vernon’s Eaux Claires festival in Wisconsin, Mountain Man released its also-acclaimed second album, Magic Ship, on the esteemed Nonesuch label in 2018. Now they’re coming off of a big 2019, when Sarlé and Sauser-Monnig (as Daughter of Swords) both released excellent solo projects.
The idea for Cosmic Prom germinated spontaneously, as things do among friends.
“We all hang out so much and have spent so much of our lives together that sometimes, when these ideas come together, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly where they came from,” Sarlé says.
In its early days, the trio played by lakes and bonfires, in stairwells and tunnels. With some academy money to spend—the shows are presented by Duke Performances—they seized on the opportunity to bring the great outdoors inside.
Most of all, they wanted to have some fun.
“We’ve all been working really hard on our own projects this past year, and I think we just wanted to do something that felt pure,” Sarlé says. “We leaned into the whimsical aspect. It felt like we were just kind of spitball-dreaming the most fun sleepover that we could, like, ‘Wouldn’t this be funny if it actually happened?’”
To make it happen, they called in a trusted friend, the Indiana-based artist Nat Russell, whose graphic, stylized paintings on shaped plywood cutouts suggested him as the perfect person to turn The Fruit into an immersive environment. They gave him free rein.
“We’ve been thinking about it as an opportunity to invite people to play in a collective format, and Nat’s work is really playful,” Sauser-Monnig says.
“And the more we can find people we truly trust and let them run with the idea, instead being like, ‘Make the leaf this way!,’ it leads to more exciting and expansive choices,” Meath adds. “It leads to the environment feeling more alive because it came from multiple minds.”
With references such as Howard Finster and the stage sets of painter David Hockney in mind, Russell has a simple goal: to be himself. After all, it’s why the band entrusted him with this.
“I’m not the kind of artist that’s going to put on a laser light show,” he says. “I’m going to make things that fit the theme that I think are beautiful and will complement the vision of these amazing performers. You’re going to feel the human hand, like a primitive or homemade magic.”
In addition to the Mountain Man concerts and the environments, the shows will feature surprise guests and DJs each night for “chill, non-required but fun dance parties,” Meath says. “This is a true invitation to create with us by investing in being as weird and far out as you feel like being.”
“They can expect to be immersed in sound and whimsy,” Sarlé adds, deadpan.
After this magical respite, the members of Mountain Man will be back to business as usual. Sauser-Monnig and Sarlé are both touring in the early months of 2020. Sylvan Esso is starting to release new music in the first half of the year, leading to a new record in the second half.
But today, they’re just hanging out on a rainy morning, and the conversation turns to their musical lives before Mountain Man. Sauser-Monnig grew up in a music store. Meath remembers driving around with a friend in a maroon Mazda Miata, making up electroclash songs. In high school, Sarlé recorded a concept album about global warming with band called the Tickle-Me Hell-Nos.
Most of this is well-trod ground for the trio, but it turns out that, after all this time, they still have things to learn about one another.
“I played flute in school band,” Sarlé says quietly.
“Really?” Meath and Sauser-Monnig reply in chorus.
Sarlé, even quieter: “I was also in jazz band.”
Both: “YOU WERE IN JAZZ BAND?”
Sarlé: “Because of Roger Triptrapper.” (Note: The name has been changed, but its silliness has been preserved.)
Meath: “Who the fuck is Roger Triptrapper?”
Sarlé: “Roger Triptrapper was the boy I had a crush on in sixth grade, and he was in jazz band. He played the clarinet.”
The conversation goes like this for some time, like it could wind on forever, a thread stitching three friends’ voices and lives together, tighter and tighter as time goes on. Music is the outcome. But the purpose is joy.
“We were just babies when we started out, and our personalities kind of grew around each other,” Meath says, growing solemn. “Molly and Alexandra’s influence has been deeply rooted in my life, and I see it more as I get older. The way you move around the world is strongly influenced by the people you surround yourself with. It’s really like they’ve raised me.”
“This year is our tenth anniversary as friends, which is very significant to me,” Meath says.
“It is significant,” Sauser-Monnig agrees.
“Very significant,” Sarlé concludes.